Bonus Creativity: Port Roven, in Broad Strokes

When creating RPG settings, cities are actually really tough to get right. They have to be more than just a collection of adventurer-related businesses and quest givers, which means they’re going to require work. But it’s all too easy to go overboard and waste time creating pointless background that’ll get ignored forever.

In a sandbox setting, you probably ought to err a bit on the side of parcimony, at least until you have a good read on your players’ intent. But there are exceptions to that rule, and one of them is that the starting city needs to be able to both sustain adventures and encourage the players to explore.

Which means it needs to 1-have enough color that the party wants to stay there, 2-have plenty of hooks, to let the players pick their fun, and 3-have an obvious link to the broader setting.

Point 1 is enough to justify an entire post on its on. It’s details on what we’ll work on today.

As to point 2, let’s have a look at the hex again, and especially at our adventure hooks:

Well, we know from the previous post that there’re are rumors of a monster in Moose Lake and goblins in the Old Watchtower. We want to introduce those hooks from the start.

The Monster rumors are going to be of the “local legends” variety (to be detailed in a future post.)

For the goblins, it’s simpler: everyone knows in the city that the local army detachment (which doubles as the local police) always has odd jobs for adventurers, since it’s chronically overwhelmed. That’s also why they tolerate adventurers’ antics. So the players will be told, flat out, that the army can be a source of adventures.

That bit of trivia opens up some options, too. The army is supposed to handle crime, but obviously they aren’t trained for that purpose, which means there’s a small-time organized crime problem in town. Not an epic fantasy thieves’ guild, but a small group of tough ex-adventurer types causing trouble. This has become a personal pet peeve of the local commander

The army is also not up to running counter-intelligence operations, which matters because Port Roven is something of a minor prize to seize, as the real city nearest the local teleport gate. It’s not yet a major city, but it could be. And politically, it’s the seat of the local government, which means it sees its share of spies and conspirators.

Finally, we know that there are some merchant companies based in Port Roven. One runs a logging camp, another is backing the mines at Three Hills (and both are always looking to hire adventurers both for legitimate exploration or security missions, and for black ops against their opponents.)

Finally, we probably also want a local wizard, as well as a religious organization, just to provide basic services. These I don’t want to involve in the adventuring aspect of the city. They might offer the occasional adventure, but neither are a source of long-term intrigue for Port Roven. That’s strictly a matter of taste, not one of design.

And point 3… will also wait. Port Roven will be a colony of one of the “old world” powers. I’ll need to describe where they fit in the grand political scheme of thing… but that’s for another day. But there’s obviously international conflict in the campaign’s future.



Bonus Creativity: This is Supposed to Be a Game

Right. So, last time, on Bonus Creativity, we made a map… and I forgot to actually put in some adventures for the players.

My bad. Let’s rectify that, by first reviewing our design guidelines.

1-This is a sandbox, so I don’t want to force my players along a predetermined path. But I still need to give them a few hooks to get started.

2-The gameworld conceit is that there are a few known civilized areas along the edge of this huge, unexplored continent. The area around Port Roven has probably already been mostly explored (and lightly settled), so there aren’t any major undiscovered structures to be found. By the same token, the area isn’t developped enough for brigands to have appeared.

3-I don’t want the area to be a backwater the players must necessary leave behind at some point. If it turns out that Port Roven strikes a chord with them, I need to make this place relevant for higher-level adventures as well.

Now, where does that leave us?

1-Site-based adventures (a.k.a. ruincrawls) must, by necessity, be relatively small: there isn’t room for a big treasure-laden temple that hasn’t been explored by previous adventurers. But there’s room for a small dungeon or two.

(Just for kicks: Fort Elsinor is built on the ruins of a large fortress, but it’s been explored and permanently secured in the past.)

2-I need a couple urban adventure hooks in Port Roven.

3-I want a “let’s come back to this later” challenge. It doesn’t need to be enormously complicated, but I want it to be on the backburner from the start.

4-I want to start introducing some of the campaign’s major themes, even if it’s only lightly.

5-I might want to introduce a politically charged adventure hook as well.

So let’s see if we can improve our map first.

So… our new locales are the Old Watchtower and the Lair of the Moose Lake Monster.

The Old Watchtower is a ruined tower located on a hill, close to where an unfinished road reaches the river which flows downhill from the mining town of Three Hills. As the game begins, there are confirmed reports that a band of goblin marauders (coming from a goblin polity the next hex over) have taken it over as a base. If the players don’t handle that problem, eventually the Port Roven authorities will send troops to deal with it.

The Moose Lake Monster is a rumor. Maybe it’s a dragon. Maybe it’s something else. But it’s big, it’s not a problem at the moment, it’s out of the way… it’s better left for later.

So that’s Point 3 and half of Point 1 figured out.

Fort Elsinor and its ruins aren’t a dungeon, but I see a way to handle Point 4. I’ve decided to limit teleporting spells significantly since the game is supposed to be a hexcrawl. So non-tactical teleports will be limited to teleport gates: permanent, fixed structures built by the previous civilizations of the continent. To use a teleport gate, someone must have visited it first. And the Port Roven area teleport gate is in Fort Elsinor. Getting it activated for the party is just a matter of visiting Fort Elsinor, but it needs to be the party’s decision (or I’ll have one of my urban adventures take the party there at some point.)

Point 5 will have to wait. Technically, there’s a conflict brewing with the goblins from the Next Hex Over, but that’s hardly what I had in mind for a political adventure.

Point 2 will need to wait as well: I need to detail Port Roven first.

That leaves me with the second half of Point 1. I’m sorely tempted to have it take place in Fort Elsinor’s ruins, but that’s the easy way out. Instead… there’s going to be a few barrows near the Selman Logging Camp (in the same Hex). One of them was opened and now the camp has a undead problem.

Well, that’s enough for now. Next time: Port Roven. Unless I do something else.

Bonus Creativity: Drilling Down

Let’s get some more work done on our hex maps, before I return to work.

Last time, we created the broad outline of the game world. Now, I want to skip down to the fine details of the starting area for our eventual game.

So… let’s work on this hex there:

ENHANCE! (and do some landscaping work, I guess)

ENHANCE! (with extra work just to make a nice coastline)

There we go. 14km hexes are small enough to allow for some worldmap-level detail (in general, I’ll only go smaller for hexes of interest.) As a rule of thumb, I figure players will cross one hex of practicable terrain in a half-day, or of rough terrain in a day.

So what do we want in our starting area?

First, some basic amount of civilization. I figure I want a small city on the coast, perhaps a pair of additionnal settlement inlands. And why not a fortress on that island?

Beyond that, I add some basic geography. Some hills, some mountains, some waterways, and the beginning of a road. We end up with this beautiful landscape:

A fine start for a campaign. The players will start in Port Roven, with a few quest hooks available in town. I imagine I’ll go with some classics (like “goblins in the mines” or “protect the caravan” but I’ll also offer exploration opportunities (maybe go map the Roven River tributaries?) and perhaps some political chicanery (like dealing with a rival nation down in the southeast hex?)

Either way, it’s a start on the mapping front. I think I’ll work on detailing Port Roven next.

Bonus Creativity: This Time, with Actual Maps!

Last time, we put down a few assumptions on our world. Before going any farther, I really do need to create the world’s geography, at least in broad strokes.

For that, I like to use HexMapper. It’s a free program with exactly as many features as I need. There are more powerful, more expensive options out there, but I don’t need too many bells and whistles. In any case, let’s fire the program and create a new world map.

Well… let’s create a reasonably-sized world. Five-meter hexes is way, way too high a resolution for a world map. And a world with five times the circumference of Earth and sixteen times the elevation is impressive, but perhaps a bit much for our purpose. As a matter of practicality, let have our gameworld-continent be, say, roughly the size of Europe (but stretched out, to allow for more climatic variations.) I figure 2000km by 5000km should be more than enough. So let’s create a 5000km by 5000km world, and let’s use the remainder as our ocean barrier and our “civilized, not used in game” continent.

Getting that actual world requires fiddling with the settings a bit, and I end up with a world built in four levels, with a base hex size of 300 meters. Let’s see what this looks like.

Well… that’s not very pretty, but it’s a start. Quick tutorial on HexMapper: currently, we’re looking at the entire world. It’s entirely made of grasslands. It’s possible to zoom into each of those hexes to see more detailed hexes, and down from there twice more until we reach the highest-resolution view (where each hex will be 300 meters to a size.) But to access those extra levels, we need to select hexes, use the Copy to Children option from the Edit menu, and then use the Down option in Navigate. Repeat ad nauseam.

Still, it means that we can build a world like we want. Let’s get started on the broad strokes.

So that’s our world (helpfully labelled by the software) at the higher level, or lowest resolution. As we add in detail at the lower levels, the higher-level maps will adjust to reflect the changes. For instance, if I add a grassland-and-forest subcontinent at the second-highest level in the rightmost ocean hex in the third row, here’s how it’ll appear on our top-level map.

So that’s how we’ll build our maps. Obviously, doing every single high-resolution hex is way too much work at first, but we’ll take it one step at a time.

Next time, we’ll focus on one of those big hexes and start drilling down.

Bonus Creativity: We Were Promised Maps

Creating a setting map for a story-driven campaign is fairly straightforward. It can be a lot of work, but ultimately it comes down to figuring out the important locations, and then adding enough fluff around them to camouflage their importance.

(Funny how that also describes creating a setting for a fantasy novel, right?)

For a sandbox campaign, however, that approach won’t work. You need important locations, sure, but you have to accept that what you thought was fluff might turn out to be more important to the players than you expected. That minor town in the middle of the map could become the center of the characters’ spice-trading empire. Or it could remain unvisited.

There are many ways to deal with that conundrum. Given a huge amount time and motivation (or ghostwriters), we could design everything down to minute details. But that’s impractical for my purposes, and not really plausible besides.

Alternately, we could simply improvise everything as the game goes. That would allow the players to shape the world with their ideas and questions… but I know my players, and what will most likely happen is that they’ll fumble around aimlessly for a few sessions, then get bored of the game. Besides… it’d make for a fairly short post series.

Instead, I’ll go with a third option: a setting that’s reasonably constrained in size and scope, at least at first. There will be a manageable number of towns and settlements, and a limited number of landmarks, dungeons, and assorted adventure locations available to the players at first.

Of course… we still need a basic idea of what goes where – which means we need to at least write down a few facts about the game world.

(Warning… the following is a brainstorming summary. It’s not a good example of methodology. Future posts in this series will be more practical, but to get started I must make a few creative assumptions that aren’t really justified beyond “it’s what I want to do.”)

I want a relatively small number of towns and cities, some politics (but not enough that an inevitable world war is coming), and plenty of adventuring opportunities. To me, that screams “frontier-of-civilization setting.”

I also want an obvious delineation on what the setting is and what’s off-map. I can trust my players to work with me and stay within the areas I’ve prepared material for, but it’s best if they’re clearly marked. And the obvious way to do that is with natural barriers – in fact, an ocean would be ideal.

Bang – we’re adventuring in the New World. That gives me politics too – my various town and cities could be the colonies of Old World powers.

I want a twist too – just having not-Europeans colonizing not-America is perhaps too predictable. So instead… this is a “reclaim the Old World” frontier. There was a huge apocalyptic war that ended the Golden Age, and civilization only survived in the boonies. Now, eons later, the new countries are returning to the cradle of civilization (to find it populated by mutated beings, monsters out of myth, and so on and so forth.) This also opens the way for hex-crawling exploration of the world – the PCs could very well mount expeditions deep into the interior, looking for awesome loot.

That’s a pretty good start. Next time: maps. (maybe.)





Bonus Creativity: A Sandbox Pathfinder Setting

I’m an obsessive TTRPGer. When I’m not thinking about books, I’m thinking about games I’ve played, and especially games I want to run.

And one of my goal is to run a sandbox Pathfinder campaign.

For the uninitiated, a sandbox campaign is one in which the players, not the game master, take the initiative in deciding what the story will be. The GM manages the setting and prepares adventures based on what the players want to do, but ultimately it’s the players’ goals that drive the story.

What this means, in practical terms, is that there are quite a few tropes that can’t be put into play. No prophecies to be fulfilled, no apocalyptic wars between gods to win, nothing that the players can’t choose to ignore. The stakes can still be high, but if the players don’t want to get involved with a particular plot point, well, the show must go on.

It also means that the setting must accomodate a variety of activities. If the players want to explore, there must be some amount of terra incognita. If they want to play politics, there must be a theater for that. And there still must be villains to confront, monsters to slay, and so on.

The old AD&D settings were pretty good for that – the pre-Time of Troubles Forgotten Realms in particular had plenty of unexplored (read: unwritten) land to explore and a relative dearth of player-achievement-trivializing fiction. Modern settings, by contrast, tend to be less accomodating. Besides, where’s the fun in using someone else’s creation?

So, over the course of the next few months, I’ll be posting my design process as I create a new setting to play in. I’ll try to go light on actual game mechanics – it’s not really pertinent to the creation process and besides, I expect there’ll be a second edition of Pathfinder by the time I get around to actually playing in that setting. Instead, I’ll focus on the reasons for my design decisions rather than on the rules minutia.

So… in our next instalment: let’s draw a map.